Fernando Espuelas sees a revolution unfolding in Latin America. In fact, he's personally shepherding it along.
Unlike some previous changes in the region, this is neither political nor bloody. It is, though, social and dramatic and stands to change the way people from Mexico to South America and even the U.S. interact with and view one another.
ROOTS WITH AT&T
"StarMedia is already making the future happen in the Spanish- and Portuguese-language markets," says the ebullient and rarely understated Mr. Espuelas, founder and chairman-CEO of StarMedia Network, the 3-year-old Internet brand that brings Spanish- and Portuguese-language content and Internet access to millions of users throughout the region and in the U.S.
Mr. Espuelas, 33, has seen the Latin American Internet revolution unfold firsthand. He experienced it when, as a marketing director for AT&T Latin America, he launched AT&T Hola, the region's first Internet brand. In Mexico, he saw teens and seniors alike standing in line to log on to the Internet before it was common for people to have their own PCs.
In fact, that's when he got the idea to launch an Internet service designed to link the region's people, who share a common language, similar cultures and close bond, he says.
"When I saw the reaction for what people had for AT&T Hola, there was a palpable shift in the way they saw the world and the potential in how they could interact with the world," he recalls.
MAJOR ISP BATTLES
The Internet in Latin America stands to change a region where 700 ISPs are battling it out in Brazil alone, with another 100 in Mexico and 60 in Argentina. This lean, dark-haired and bespectacled Uruguayan has positioned himself to lead the way.
He is a cyber evangelist, preaching the power of the Internet to change the historical power structures in Latin America--and counting on would-be competitors to make one keen mistake: "not targeting the Spanish- and Portuguese-language markets early enough," he says.
BLUE CHIP ADVERTISERS
This is a market where 65% of the fast-growing population is under the age of 30, and where the middle class now estimated at 100 million is growing by 10 million people per year, he says. And that doesn't even include the U.S., where the Latino population is expected to top 32.4 million 1999, up from 30.5 million in 1998; spending is expected to bloom to $301.1 billion this year, up 10.2% from last year, according to the Strategy Research Corp. With immigration and new births, the market will top 36 million people by 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Mr. Espuelas has convinced the region's people to log on to the tune of 686 million page views for the quarter ended June 30, a 416% increase over the page views for the quarter ended March 31.
He also has convinced advertisers such as Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Epson, 3Com Corp., Intercontinental Hotels, DirecTV, General Motors Corp., BMW, Ford and DaimlerChrysler to join him.
COCA-COLA OF THE NET
Mr. Espuelas, working with partner, president and childhood friend Jack Chen--a former Goldman Sachs investment banker--took the company through three rounds of private financing worth a combined $96 million before taking the company public May 26. Its current market capitalization is around $2 billion. All this from the two founders who teetered on bankruptcy as recently as 1996 before the StarMedia brand took off.
Using creative from Heymann, Bengoa, Berbari, in Buenos Aires, and media buying from Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson, StarMedia is being positioned against even local portals and ISPs as a top Spanish- and Portuguese-language Internet brand, or as Mr. Espuelas likes to think of it: "The Coca-Cola of Latin American Internet."
Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc.